• Jul 19, 2009

Every so often, some magazine or website publishes a list of "The Top 10 Songs About Cars & Driving," or something along those lines.

These lists can be entertaining, and often stir up memories of our youth, and of the car songs that we all remember. Except that's part of the problem -- it seems like it's always the same 10 songs or so. And the list is almost always confined to those songs that were mainstream Top 40 hits.

So, these lists almost always include catchy numbers like the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Little Deuce Coupe," Prince's "Little Red Corvette," Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55," Gary Numan's "Cars," Golden Earring's "Radar Love," Bruce Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac," etc. -- songs that have practically been pounded into clich?by super-heavy radio rotation.

But, I have a "dual career" -- in addition to being a longtime auto writer, I've also worked as a music journalist for more than 15 years -- so I thought I would compile my own list, one that digs a little deeper and pulls together some great, stirring, compelling car & driving songs that didn't make the Top 40, and therefore might sound "new" and exciting to music lovers whose listening habits were perhaps mostly influenced by commercial radio. I also thought it would be interesting to go into a bit more detail about what makes these such great car songs.

So, here, in no particular order, are my choices for the "10 Coolest Songs About Cars & Driving -- the subtitle of which could be, "Including Some Great Ones You Possibly Don't Already Know." And, at the end, I've also listed a few "Honorable Mentions"



"She Runs Hot"
by Little Village


This roots-rock supergroup (John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe, Jim Keltner) only made one album together, their self-titled 1992 release. "She Runs Hot" is another entry in that long tradition of a male songwriter crafting a song in such a way that it's not only about a hot car. If you're so inclined, you can also hear the song as being about a woman.

The percolating groove laid down here by drummer Keltner and bassist Lowe is perfect for a car / driving song, while Cooder's lascivious slide guitar conjures the feel of hot-footing it down a desert highway on a sweltering August night. And the lyrics -- with most of the verses sung by Hiatt -- are as vivid, clever and evocative as you'll ever need in a song about a hot car: "Ease it over, son, I'll show you how she runs / Screamin' like a demon, when the quarter mile comes / Crankcase cookin', that's her manifold destiny.... Burnin' down the line, ten seconds time....She runs hot, hot, hot for me....."



"Automobile"
by John Prine

This winner is from Prine's 1979 album, "Pink Cadillac," recorded at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios, where Elvis Presley cut some of his seminal mid-'50s tracks. So, on several tunes, like this one, Prine and his band fittingly update some of the vintage sounds of that era, to wonderful effect -- the slapping stand-up bass and the twangy guitars also evoke the sound of an engine pumping on all eight cylinders.

The lyrics are a hoot, as Prine first mopes about his car freezing up, scolds his kids in the back seat, then frets about driving too noisily past a hospital -- before gleefully gunning 'er at the end.

The song commences: "Feb-ru-ary morning / My car won't start today / I turned the key, at 8:03 / And the battery passed away / Inside a' my automobile...." But, by the end of the tune, things are looking up, as Prine eschews singing and just uses his droll, drawling speaking voice: "We ought to take the air filter off this sucker, so we can see what it will....really do / Uh-oh, it looks to me like a HOS-PITAL Zone / Everybody get quiet....We're almost out....Hang on....Uh-oh....Here we go!"



"Long White Cadillac"
by the Blasters

This Los Angeles band cooked up a high-octane brew of turbo-twang rock n roll, blues, R&B and country, and their shows were so high-energy and intense that the band was also embraced by the punk audience. In this song, from '83, writer / guitarist Dave Alvin re-imagines Hank Williams' last ride, the night before Hank died on New Year's Day, 1953 -- but the lyrics are sung from the point of view of Williams himself, as though he knew it was his last ride.

On paper, that sounds like pretty grim stuff, but the Blasters rev it up to full throttle, with Alvin digging into his bag of flash-guitar tricks, with vibrato-heavy, double-time riffing and dramatic stops-and-starts -- as brother Phil Alvin soulfully sings: "The winter hills are black / I'm all alone / Sitting in the back / Of a long white Cadillac / Headlights shiiiine, highway fades to black / It's my last ride -- I'm never comin' back / In a long whiiiite....Cadillac."



"Me and the Boys"
by NRBQ

For forever, it seems, these guys have been known as The World's Greatest Bar Band, and for good reason. Guitarist Big Al Anderson (who left the band in the '90s) boasted terrifying chops, and the other guys were / are ace players as well. They've written a healthy number of good-time car / driving songs, including "Riding in My Car," "Rain at the Drive In," "Green Light" and "Me & the Boys." The latter two were covered by Bonnie Raitt, who chose "Green Light" as the title track for her 1982 album.

This is the coolest of the bunch, though. Anderson cranks out some tough, churning, angular riffs, while bassist / vocalist Joey Spampinato good-naturedly sings about the pleasures of cruisin' with the boys: "Just a buncha guys gettin' in the car / No matter who's drivin', or for how far / Feels so good, feels so alive / No backseat drivers tell us how to drive....The car gears shiftin' well, up and down / The muffler's a little loud, but we love that sound....Me and the boys....Just me and the boys!"



"Rollin In My Rolls"
by Moon Martin and the Ravens

Part of the new-wave movement of the late '70s / early '80s, Martin & the Ravens delivered some brisk, buoyant tunes. (He wrote "Bad Case of Loving You," which was later a hit for Robert Palmer.) They also earn props for having one of the coolest band names of the era. Here, the insistent rhythm-guitar lick and swaggering beat drive the song home. The lead-guitar solo bites and bristles, tugging at your ear, as the singer cleverly namechecks his fave cars, his fave car songs, his musical heroes -- and his preferred transmission:

"I seen Presley in his '37 Rolls....And I always had a dream / Someday I'd be seen, rollin' in my Rolls....I don't want a turbo, just give me overdrive / Baby I'm a' talkin' bout the smoothest ride alive / Maybelline got restless, now Nadine met her match / They call me the Roadrunner, nobody can catch / 'Cos I'm rollin' in my Rolls....I don't want a sports car, they're much too hard to shift / I like Cruise-O-Matic, baby, do you want a lift?"



"Outskirts"
by James McMurtry


McMurtry is the son of acclaimed novelist Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Dove," "Terms of Endearment"), and "Outskirts" is from his 1989 debut album, produced by John Mellencamp and featuring Mellencamp's crack band of the era. 'Outskirts" is another category of driving songs with a rich heritage -- songs about a guy who drives all night, or sometimes for days, trying to get back to his woman -- or, to his ex, who isn't always that thrilled to see the brooding, lovesick mope when he shows up on her doorstep. Here, the Stonesy, heartland-rock guitar riffs and driving rhythm propel McMurtry's detail-rich, heart-tugging musings:

"I'm just on the outskirts, of an old familiar town, with a misty darkness coming down / On the fringes, on the outside looking in.....The streets are slick as glass, ditches lined with stranded cars....Cold coffee / Styrofoam cup from the Stop 'n Go / Throw it in the floorboard / Catch the weather on the radio....She says, 'Well, now where you been? Didn't expect you back again. Trying to get out of the wind, are you, now?'"



"Crawlin' From the Wreckage"
Written by Graham Parker, covered by Dave Edmunds

Parker penned the song and recorded it first, but Edmunds' version got more attention, and was indeed a punchier, more pile-driving performance. In the 1979 Edmunds rendition, his patented, chugging, "monkey-beat" guitar groove muscles the song along, as does the killer, pounding drum attack by Terry Williams. The lyrics deliver a satirical, dark-humored send-up of a guy who's just too dumb and reckless to obey the speed limit, even in the rain -- and knows it:

"Got out really early from the factory / Driving like a nut in the rain....I took out my revenge on the revolution counter....When I'm disconnected from the driving wheel / I'm only half the man that I should be....Crawling from the wreckage, crawlin' from the wreckage / You'd think by now at least that half my brain would get the message / Crawling from the wreckage....Into a brand new caarrrr."



"Cadillac Assembly Line"
Written by Sir Mack Rice, popularized by Albert King

It wouldn't seem right if this list didn't include a song written by a Detroiter -- or a song that's actually about building the cars. This song fills both bills. Sir Mack Rice, a Detroit soul-music singer-songwriter of the '60s, also composed "Mustang Sally." On this tune, he sketches some of vivid details experienced by many black men who migrated to Detroit from the rural South in the '50s and '60s to seek a more livable wage in the city's myriad auto assembly plants.

The most popular version of the tune was recorded by the great bluesman Albert King, and on his rendition, King employs his gritty, heartfelt vocals and eloquent, biting guitar to convey the lonesomeness -- but hopefulness -- of a man who had to temporarily leave his woman behind to pursue a better life for both of them:

"Goin' to Detroit, Michigan / Girl, I can't take you....Goin' to get me a job on the Cadillac assembly line / I'm tired of whoopin' and hollerin'....Up and down the Mississippi road....Pickin' that nasty cotton....When I make my first check, I'll put you on the Delta jet....I'm gonna send for you, darlin'/ Won't you come on home?"



"Long May You Run"
by Neil Young

Long May You Run - Neil Young

The title track for the 1976 album by The Stills-Young Band (that's Stills as in Stephen), this song has been part of Young's live set, on and off, ever since. Young was, and remains, a vintage-car nut -- his fans know that, back in the mid-'60s, Young drove down from Toronto to Los Angeles in an old hearse that was essentially an antique.

This song is another of those with a double meaning: On one level, it's about one of those vintage old boats that Young finally, sadly, had to say good-bye to. But the lyrics are crafted in such a way that it can also be heard as good-tidings message sung wistfully -- as only Young can do "wistful" -- to an old friend or a departing ex-lover:

"We've been through some things together....Although these changes have come / With your chrome heart shining in the sun / Long may you run / Well, it was back in Blind River in 1963 / When I last saw you alive / But we missed that shift on the long decline....Maybe The Beach Boys have got you now.....Rollin' down that empty ocean road / Gettin' to the surf on time / Long may you run...."



"Ramrod"
by Bruce Springsteen

You just knew this list also had to include a Springsteen song about cars or driving, since he's seemingly written about a million of those mythic turnpike operas -- like "Racing In the Street," "Streets of Fire," "Used Car," "Wreck on the Highway," "Open All Night," "State Trooper," etc.

But I have to go with this one, from "The River" album in 1980 -- partly for its sheer exuberance -- it probably rocks harder, with more attitude, than any of his other car / driving songs. And, the gearhead detail doesn't hurt, as he boasts to his baby about his road machine's specs and racing prowess -- even though, by the end, he's not just popping the clutch -- he's also popping the question:

"She's a hot stepping HEMI with a four on the floor / She's a roadrunner engine in a '32 Ford / Late at night when I'm dead on the line / I swear I think of your pretty face when I let her unwind....There's a cute little chapel nestled down in the pines....Say you'll be mine little girl, and I'll put my foot to the floor / Give me the word now sugar, we'll go ramroddin' forever more."

Honorable Mentions:

"440 Horses," Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash

"Mustang Sally," original version by Detroit's Sir Mack Rice

"Blue Chevrolet," the Beat Farmers

"Makin' Thunderbirds," Bob Seger

"Six Days on the Road," Merle Haggard

"Diamonds On My Windshield," Tom Waits



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